A great idea, whether in screenwriting, songwriting, or painting, is an untamed animal – roaming free, jumping unpredictably from synapse to synapse, often in shadow, but omnipresent. Wrangling a line of dialogue, a melody, or a vision from the mind to the page can be a painful process, and once the thought is translated (internally or externally), the process has only just begun. Then comes the terrifying procedure of filling in the blanks and, most importantly, providing the right amount of self-criticism. “Paralysis by analysis” is a cliché, but some of the most creative ideas have likely never seen the light of day as the result of reluctance or self-doubt. If a writer has never known the pain of excessive self-criticism, they’ve never been a writer at all.
The best screenplays work on multiple levels, across different genres and audiences. The great comedies are more than just comedies and the great thrillers have more to offer than thrills. At their best, one-note films have a tendency to provoke defensiveness from audiences – “It was fun” or “You need to turn your brain off to enjoy it.” These types of movies can be done well, but they don’t sustain. The translucence of the prototypical action film isn’t lost on audiences, even audiences that enjoy them. The best of simpleminded summer fare can do terrific job of engaging a certain part of the brain, but leaves too much of a moviegoer’s mind dormant. This isn’t a scientific observation, but a suggestion that Hollywood repeatedly underestimates its customers.
“Back To The Future” is a popular example of a perfectly crafted screenplay, and deservedly so. Writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale went to incredible lengths to leave no narrative stone unturned, and this was done through the creation of an inimitably deft first act. Each character, from Marty to the dozen or so supporting characters, is given unique behavioral tics that are simultaneously humorous and effortless. The film is established so well that it could have rested on its laurels in acts II and III, but instead pays off nearly every reference made throughout the film (“Better get used to these bars, kid).
Even the pop culture non-sequiturs (Doc Brown’s incredulity at the thought of Ronald Reagan, The President) serve to inform us of his character and the generational gap dividing him from Marty – and himself! With just one line, we get a little insight into the 1955 version of his character and the way in which the world would change over the course of the next thirty years. No small feat. Also, not only does Marty’s slang usage of the word “heavy” (and Doc’s perplexed reaction) indicate a funny language difference, but hints at the dramatic collision of science and adolescence and even that of a Cold War and post-Cold War world.
None of this is to mention the screenplay’s brilliant use of universal themes and its refusal to pigeonhole itself. Firstly, everybody has parents and the thought of them at our age, no matter the age, usually makes one both curious and queasy. Secondly, the script has it all – comedy, action, and drama, running the gamut of everything a filmgoer could possibly experience in a movie theater. The obvious verisimilitude of the story is immaterial because Zemeckis and Gale convincingly set up their own logic for the film, and never sway from it. “Back To The Future” is an immensely intricate film and it was probably excruciating to write, but it plays like it was hammered out by two friends over a weekend of beer and football – one of the great magic tricks in cinema history.
Regrettably, the acceptance of great screenplays into the world of film production doesn’t just lie at the feet of screenwriters. Studios have become increasingly likely to turn away the best and brightest out of fear – fear of box office failure, fear of critical failure, but mostly, fear of their audiences. Executives have fallen victim to release date patterns, test screening results, and demographic research. It’s time that more young screenwriters blur the lines between genres and target audiences, and take advantage of new career byways. Writing may not be as glamorous a profession as acting or directing, but it keeps those folks working and it keeps bringing amazing works of art to theaters across the world. Even if we have to suffer the occasional “Transformers” film.